‘Three time’s a charm’ for Lady Panthers

Donna Lampkin Stephens/Contributing Writer Published July 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Members of the Benton Lady Panthers fast-pitch softball team celebrate following a 3-run home run by freshman Breanna Langford that helped the team win its third state championship with a 4-2 decision over rival Sheridan.

BENTON — The third time was the charm for members of Benton’s Lady Panther softball team this spring — in so many ways:

• They won their third fast-pitch state title, following previous ones in 2004 and ’05.

• They had lost both previous games with Sheridan before prevailing in the third in the Class 6A state final at the University of Arkansas’ Bogle Park, 4-2.

• The senior class had ended its season the last two years against Russellville (in the state final in 2012 and the state semifinals in ’13). Benton beat Russellville in the semifinals this year, 2-1; it was the reverse of the same score in ’13.

• This season marked the third time for the senior class to reach the state championship game.

• 2014 was coach Heidi Cox’s third season with the program.

• Cox missed five weeks of the season on maternity leave for her third child — and third son.

“We had a lot of ‘three times the charm’ going for us,’” senior second baseman Karrie McCurry said. “That’s what we went off of and how we had confidence. Everything was going to be perfect because it was ‘three times the charm.’”

The Lady Panthers finished 22-5. The second seed from the 6A-South, they beat Little Rock Parkview in the opening round of the state tournament, 15-0; Greenwood in the quarterfinals, 10-1; Russellville in the semifinals, 2-1; and Sheridan, the top seed from the South, in the championship, 4-2.

“Honestly, it was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my entire life — especially since nobody expected

us to do it,” McCurry said. “We had support from our families, but we were basically the underdogs of the season, especially during the final, and coming out with a win was so awesome.”

Cox said the team jelled at the perfect time.

“We adjusted the lineup quite a bit, had moved some things around defensively,” she said. “The chemistry was good. Toward the end of the year, the kids were on fire. They had timely hits, great camaraderie, and they really believed in each other. We played a couple of games where we got behind and came back. They believed they could do it. They were ready.”

She credited a six-player senior class for “enormous” leadership. Besides McCurry, the class included catcher Ashton Currey; first baseman Rachel McCallister; pitcher Anna Hurley; right fielder/pitcher Stevi Muilenburg; and outfielder Molly Brannon.

Muilenburg and Currey will play for Arkansas-Monticello, Cox’s alma mater, in the fall. Hurley will play for Central Baptist College.

Only three starters returned from last year’s state semifinalist, but the seniors made that transition easy, Cox said.

“That senior leadership wanted it so bad,” she said. “These seniors had been to the finals three out of the four years. The third time was the charm. It was very awesome.”

Cox, 34, came to Benton from Texas High School in Texarkana. Before that, she had coached at her alma mater across State Line Avenue, Arkansas High School. She had her third son, Ranger,

on March 19. He joined his older brothers Remington, 6, and Ryder, 3. Cox’s maternity leave was easier, she said, knowing she was leaving the Lady Panthers in the capable hands of assistants Emily Loy and Chris Murphree.

“I can’t say enough about them,” Cox said. “They did an outstanding job.”

But everyone was ready for Cox’s return.

“If we hadn’t had coach Loy and coach Murphree, we would’ve fallen apart,” McCurry said. “But our season completely turned around when Coach Cox came back. It was a totally new team. We needed our third coach — everything was, ‘Three time’s a charm.’”

The state semifinal win over Russellville was an eye-opener.

“We just talked about how we’re a team, and all we had to do was play together and for each other, and we’d be fine,” McCurry said.

After slaying that dragon, Sheridan loomed again. Benton’s two regular-season losses to the Lady Yellowjackets came in Cox’s absence. In the state final, Sheridan led, 2-1, in the top of the seventh when freshman Breanna Langford delivered a full-count, three-run home run over the left-field fence for a 4-2 Benton lead. Langford, who had entered as relief pitcher in the fifth inning, then secured the win from the mound when, with two runners on and two outs, she forced a fly out to center field to end the game.

“It was definitely joy,” Cox said of her reaction to the title. “It has been such a high — the hospitality the community has shown us and the pride the kids carry for Benton. I’m just so proud of all the hard work. The motto we used all year was, ‘Finish empty,’ so in the offseason, the preseason, doing cardio, weights, we pushed them every day to ‘finish empty,’ to not leave anything. They left everything out there.”

The Lady Panthers will be young next year, but four of five freshmen on the roster got a good bit of varsity experience this spring. Cox said they would have to mature, but she’s not limiting her expectations.

“There’s nothing like the first [state title], of course, but I told the girls I’d love to get another one,” she said.

McCurry will attend Arkansas State University in the fall without softball. She’s leaving her sport while at the top.

“I could not ask for a better ending to my softball career,” she said. “I got a hit in my last at-bat; my team won the state championship. You can’t end on anything better than that.”

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